Ip Man Poetics
I’m back with more from Chinese and Japanese Films on the Second World War edited by King-fai Tam, Timothy Y. Tsu, and Sandra Wilson, this time focusing on Paola Voci’s essay “The Sino-Japanese War in Ip Man: From Miscommunication to Poetic Combat.” I’m counting this as one of my “#Books on Baze” posts, though, because Jiang Wen appears in this essay, too (see below).
Voci’s main argument is that 2008′s Ip Man is a hybrid work, both a martial arts blockbuster – with its “focus on the hero’s martial arts skills and superior morality” placing it in the “martial arts film tradition in which kungfu (wuda) represents an essentialized Chinese culture and nation” – and a Chinese war film, and that, through its translator subplot and its martial arts choreography, “war’s national and nationalistic antagonisms are pushed to the background and the focus is rather on the fallibility of language in fostering mutual understanding.”
The takeaway? Voci suggests that two forms of communication with the enemy are portrayed in the film. The verbal is closed, failed communication, because the two sides are working from different systems of beliefs and unable to understand each other. The successful communication appears with the fighting itself, through the poetics of martial arts: “The violent confrontation is controlled by the specific grammar of the martial arts code that allows the protagonists finally to engage with each other directly, freely, but according to a precise code of motions.” Cinematically speaking, this means “the focus is on the visual as a means to construct a poetic communication that relies on the evocative power of visual metaphors. Each gesture, each movement of their coded fight is charged with symbolic meanings…”
(In other words, everyone gets the message when Donnie Yen kicks your ass.)
Voci points out that this focus on war and (mis)communication puts Ip Man squarely within the larger Chinese war-film dialogue, and then compares it with – you guessed it – Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep (2000), which, though “radically oppositional to Ip Man’s nationalist ideology,” shares “the same suspicion about language” and “more cynically, suggests that language-based communication may in fact doom humanity to self-destruction.”